From Activities to Reflection in Teacher Development

I’ve just returned from a visit to a project that is promoting mentoring as a strategy for the professional development of English language teachers. During the visit I observed English lessons in secondary state schools and also sat in on post-lesson observation discussions between mentors and teachers. Several discussions went something like this:

Mentor: How do you feel about the lesson?
Teacher: I think it was successful.
Mentor: Why do you feel that way?
Teacher: Because the students worked in groups, they did activities, and I finished all the activities in my lesson plan.
Mentor: Yes, I think the lesson was very nice.

Such conversations reveal the beliefs that teachers (and often mentors too) have about successful teaching. Earlier in the project the teachers had received training on student-centred, communicative, activity-based learning and it was clear in the lessons I saw that that teachers were taking on board many of the messages that had been promoted in this training and which their mentors were also encouraging them to focus on. For example, many lessons I saw were characterised by:

  • the use of laptops and projectors
  • asking students to work in groups
  • teaching aids such as posters and pictures
  • matching activities involving slips of paper (e.g. match vocabulary with meaning)
  • almost exclusive use of English by the teacher and students.

My presence as a foreign visitor inevitably meant that the lessons I saw were not always typical (see the entry for ‘reactivity’ in this glossary), but they did reflect teachers’ beliefs about what a successful lesson was. And on the basis of the lessons and the post-lesson discussions I saw a successful lesson was conceived as one where

  • students complete activities (rather than just listening passively)
  • students are placed in groups
  • students are encouraged to speak English
  • a range of materials or resources (including technology) are used
  • the planned activities are completed in the time available.

These are clearly positive beliefs for teachers to have, particularly in a context where language teaching has traditionally been very heavily text-based and teacher-centred. However, it was also clear that teachers needed ongoing support to help them develop more productive understandings of how the effectiveness of a lesson might be judged and in particular to focus more on what students were actually doing and learning during lessons. For example, although students were regularly asked to sit in groups, the activities they were assigned did not require group work and my observations suggested that very often one more able student did all of the work (these were thus physical groups rather than co-operative groups – more on this distinction here).  And to take one more example, while teachers knew how to implement various activities they had learned through their training, the links between these activities and the objectives of the lesson were typically not obvious. Lessons were often sequences of unconnected activities.

Relative to their practices before the training and mentoring project they were involved in, these teachers had I am sure made visible positive changes to their teaching. I was, though, left with a number of reflections on the choice of content on professional development projects for English language teachers more generally:

  1.  During training, a simple focus on new activities and techniques will not suffice in helping teachers improve the quality of English language learning that takes place – e.g. simply putting students into groups or using the projector does mean the students will learn more.
  2.  Teachers thus need support in developing a reflective stance on their work – not just thinking about the activities they will include in a lesson but also about why such activities are there and how they promote learning (and also appreciating that you do not need to have group work or use a computer in every lesson).
  3.  Teachers also need to understand how learning can be assessed during lessons and to develop strategies for doing so.
  4.  The ability to define clear objectives for English lessons and to devise a staged sequence of activities that address these objectives is also a fundamental competence that teachers require (see Professional Practice 1 in the new British Council CPD framework).
  5.  Overall, teachers would benefit from a view of good teaching and successful lessons which focuses very directly on learning rather than activities and resources.

So important questions arise here I think for the topics which are given priority during professional development projects. Teachers do need to develop a repertoire of new techniques and activities but what is more important is that they have the ability to use these critically, to sequence them effectively to fulfil specific objectives, and to assess the learning the takes place during lessons. Without these deeper forms of professional learning there is a risk that teacher development projects will achieve superficial gains without, though, having a significant impact on the quality of learning that students experience.

As always, I’d be interested in any experiences you have relevant to this post and of the kinds of professional development (especially the content) that can help teachers of English improve the quality of learning in the classroom.

Posted in professional development, teacher education | 23 Comments

English Medium Instruction in Higher Education – New Report

In universities around the world there is a growing trend towards English medium instruction (EMI). Many arguments have been posited in favour of EMI but there is also increasing evidence that implementing EMI is a complex undertaking and that unless suitable conditions exist the anticipated benefits of EMI are unlikely to be realized.

Iraqi Kurdistan is one context where EMI is being increasingly promoted in higher education and I was recently commissioned by the British Council to examine the perspectives on EMI held by lecturers in state universities in this context. The report of this work has just been published and is available for download at



Posted in English medium instruction, research | 1 Comment

Research Evidence and L2 Teaching

I have for many years been interested in one basic (but big) question: why do language teachers teach in the ways they do? This question has driven much of my work on teacher cognition, since understanding the knowledge, thinking, beliefs and feelings teachers have is key to understanding what they do.

In my discussions with many language teachers over the years, one constant has been that teachers’ explanations for their teaching are overwhelmingly practical in nature. This does not mean that teachers’ work is atheoretical or unprincipled; what it does mean is that formal knowledge (as codified in research findings and academic theory) is not seen by teachers to be an immediate influence on their daily classroom practices. Many of these practices can, of course, be traced back to some underlying theory, but such influences are typically implicit, indirect and mediated (e.g. through coursebooks) and thus not normally salient in teachers’ minds when they talk about their work. For example, no teacher I have spoken to has explained their approach to written corrective feedback by citing the extensive research on this topic or taxonomies of feedback strategies such as that in Ellis (2009). Rather, it more likely that that, although at some point in their career teachers did encounter this formal knowledge, what happens in their lessons reflects the practical knowledge they have developed through experience of what seems to work, what colleagues do and what coursebooks and curricula recommend.

So we have a contrast here between formal knowledge (academic research and theory) and practical knowledge (developed by teachers through experience). The latter influences what teachers do much more than the former. This is natural, and anyone who criticises research and researchers for not having sufficient direct impact on what teachers do needs to recalibrate such rather deterministic expectations (Hammersley’s work here is very helpful in discussing how research might relate to pedagogy).

Having said that, it is useful to consider why formal knowledge is not a source of what teachers do and I feel that the major contributing factor is this one:

Teachers’ experiences of research in both pre-service and in-service contexts fail to establish its relevance to their professional activity.

The problem is thus not with research knowledge per se but with how teachers experience it and I am firmly of the belief the belief that if teachers see research as a relevant resource, they will then engage with it more positively. The question for teacher educators, therefore, is the following:

How can research be positioned as a valuable resource (as opposed to inert knowledge) for teachers in pre-service and in-service contexts?

One basic requirement in addressing this issue is structured time and space for engaging with research. The nature of pre-service study (especially at university) means that it is easier to create conditions where student teachers engage with research. In in-service contexts, creating fulfilling encounters with research for teachers is more challenging. But teacher engagement with research will not normally occur spontaneously, and therefore structures to facilitate it (e.g. workshops, discussion groups, on-line forums) need to be created. Within these structures, here are some strategies which can have a positive impact on allowing teachers to see research as a useful professional resource:

  • engage teachers in a discussion of why a particular research topic is relevant to classroom practice (e.g. why should teachers be interested in studies of written corrective feedback strategies)?
  • present research findings as a stimulus for reflection on what teachers do and possible alternatives rather than definite advice on what teachers should be doing.
  • encourage teachers to respond critically to research rather than treating it as incontestable
  • ask teachers to collect evidence from their own classrooms and which can inform the discussion of  particular research (e.g. evidence of how teachers provide written corrective feedback)
  • engage teachers with research papers they are likely to find interesting and conceptually and linguistically accessible
  • provide user-friendly summaries of research which facilitate teachers’ engagement with it
  • position research as a resource that enhances teachers’ professional identity rather than being a threat to it (e.g. by implying that teachers should be pseudo-academics)
  • use practice as the starting point in the discussion of research, rather than working from research to practice in a way that suggests the former determines the latter
  • create structures (e.g. reading groups) where teachers select a research paper they want to read and collaboratively discuss its implications for their teaching
  • illustrate in practical terms what research implies for teaching and give teachers research-informed ideas they can take away and try out
  • expose teachers to research conducted by practitioners not just by academics.

In education generally (especially in the UK) much work has been done into understanding what factors might encourage teachers to engage more fully with research (e.g. Cordingley et al. 2005; Judkins et al. 2014). In L2 teaching, this issue remains understudied; I dedicate a chapter to it in Teacher research in language teaching while papers such as Rankin & Becker (2006) and Fenton-Smith & Stillwell (2011) are also relevant. Rod Ellis has also written about how SLA research might interface with pedagogy (e.g. Ellis 2010).

It is unrealistic to expect formal knowledge (academic research and theory) to ever become a dominant explicit feature of teachers’ explanations of their work. However, by creating suitable opportunities and positioning research appropriately in relation to practice, it is certainly possible to address the recurrent sentiment among teachers that research has no relevance to their work.

I’d be very interested to hear your views on this issue. If you are a teacher, what role does reading and using research play in your work? In pre-service contexts, how can the notion of research as a valuable professional resource be reinforced? If you are an in-service teacher educator, to what extent do you seek to engage teachers with research, what strategies do you use and how does this impact on teachers’ work?

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Justifying Language Teacher Cognition Research

I am currently at the University of Aarhus teaching a PhD course on language teacher cognition research and our discussions there stimulated this month’s blog. For those new to this topic, teacher cognition research studies the unobservable dimensions of teaching and teacher learning – constructs such as beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, thinking, decision-making and emotion – and how these relate to the process of becoming, being and developing as a teacher. A short article introducing this field of research is available here and a detailed bibliography here.

One fundamental question teacher cognition research needs to address clearly is ‘why is it important to understand what teachers know, believe, think and feel?’ Today it is not enough to study, for example, teacher beliefs, for their own sake – a more concrete reason is needed. And for this reason I am critical (see Borg 2015) of papers which increasingly describe teacher cognition without any ulterior purpose or sense of how such insights might be of value. It can often be, though, difficult to provide a convincing answer to the ‘why’ question above, so let’s consider some examples.

In Zheng & Borg (2014) we examined teachers’ cognitions and practices in relation to task-based learning and teaching (TBLT). It was easy to justify this study because TBLT was a central idea in the English curriculum in China and teachers’ interpretations of it had clear implications for their implementation of the curriculum.

One of the participants on the Aarhus PhD course is studying teachers’ beliefs and practices in relation to differentiation. Again, justifying this study is straightforward because official curriculum documents for the teaching of German in Denmark specify that differentiation is expected of all teachers; understanding how teachers interpret and implement this idea, then, is very relevant to making sense of how they follow curricular guidelines.

So where an idea is central to policy but teachers’ understandings of it are unstudied, it is easy to justify making it the focus of teacher cognition research.

One of my PhD students in Norway (see Hestetræet 2012) is studying teachers’ beliefs and practices about vocabulary teaching. In this case the justification lies in three intersecting factors: an abundant theoretical and methodological literature on L2 vocabulary teaching, the status of vocabulary teaching as a fundamental aspect of L2 classrooms, and the general absence of research which has examined how teachers teach vocabulary and the beliefs that underpin their instructional choices. These are the same arguments that underpinned my early research on teacher cognition and grammar and my more recent work on learner autonomy.

So, if we are able to argue that an issue (a) is characterised by a large literature (b) is a fundamental activity in L2 teaching and (c) has not been studied from a teacher cognition perspective, a case can be made for examining teachers’ beliefs, knowledge, thinking or feelings in relation to this issue.

A third case where teacher cognition research can be justified is where teachers’ practices are not aligned with what is expected or considered optimal. For example, if it is observed that in L2 classrooms very little oral interaction takes place in the target language, then examining teacher cognition about target language use by teachers and students could provide insight into current classroom practices.

Teacher cognition research is also important in the context of teacher education and professional development. In teacher education, examining student teachers’ prior knowledge and beliefs can inform the design and delivery of pre-service courses; in professional development contexts, teacher cognition research allows us to understand if and how knowledge and beliefs change – i.e. what kind of impact professional development is having (see for example Borg 2011).

So there are different ways in which language teacher cognition research can be justified:

  • to understand to what extent and how policy (or an innovation) is being interpreted and implemented;
  • to examine widely discussed aspects of L2 teaching about which teachers’ cognitions remain under-studied;
  • to make sense of gaps between current teacher practices and what is considered optimal or desirable;
  • to establish a baseline of prior cognitions which can inform the subsequent design of teacher education courses;
  • to evaluate the ongoing and summative impact of professional development.

Many studies of teacher cognition are not justified using such arguments. Sometimes they limit themselves to the ‘gap’ argument – ‘we know little about teachers’ cognitions about X’ (without establishing why X is an important issue) – or the contextual argument – ‘teacher cognition about X has not been studied in my country’ – but neither of these alone suffice to build a convincing case.

If you are doing research on language teacher cognition, what is the justification for your study? What other convincing kinds of justification can we add to the list above?

Posted in research, teacher cognition | 5 Comments

Process and Product in Teacher Research

I’ve just returned from a very interesting assignment where I worked with a Ministry of Education which is promoting and supporting professional inquiry among English language teachers in primary and secondary schools. Teacher research is one form of professional inquiry that is being promoted in this context and one recurrent theme in my discussions with teachers there was the value of both process and product in teacher research.

The issue can be framed quite simply as follows: when teachers (not just in this particular context but more generally) study their own work (and communicate the inquiry to others) attention to the product of the inquiry (i.e. the results) too often overshadows that given to what teachers learn through the process (e.g. about themselves, their students, teaching, learning, collaboration and professional learning). As a result, teacher research is often seen to be successful only when it generates positive measureable results – e.g. evidence that teaching in a particular way leads to improvements in student test scores. This is a limiting way to view the purpose and value of teacher research and it is worth thinking about why teachers often bring this perspective to the study of their own work.

One powerful factor will be teachers’ existing notions of research, notions which will often be reinforced in the educational community more widely. My own research over the years has shown that teachers commonly associate research with experimental and statistical inquiry that leads to significant and generalizable results. In many contexts, as soon as teachers hear the word ‘research’, as in teacher research or action research, a whole set of prior understandings are activated which immediately dispose teachers to adopt a product-oriented approach to studying their own work and to downplay the value of what is learned through the process.

Institutional expectations can also play a role here. School leaders may communicate to teachers the expectation that teacher research will generate results which can be applied more widely in the school to enhance the effectiveness of teaching and learning. Professional inquiry can contribute to institutional growth, but the expectation that the outcomes of a (short) classroom study will provide the definitive evidence that shapes school policy is unrealistic and places undue pressure on teachers who feel they have to come up with some ‘significant’ results.

A further factor that may frustrate our efforts to get teachers to reflect more openly and deeply on the process of professional inquiry is a drive to showcase success rather than to consider in broader terms what might be learned from teacher research (even when interventions do not have the hoped-for results). In such contexts, the process of teacher research will be valued less than the results it generates (and the results themselves will only be valued if they provide evidence of ‘success’). Yet teacher research can support professional learning in ways that extend way beyond specific research findings.

I am in no way suggesting that results do not matter in teacher research. What I am arguing against is an exclusive, often premature and unwarranted focus on results and greater recognition for the fact that the learning that teacher research produces goes beyond the actual ‘findings’ of a study. In practical terms, then, in promoting attention to process in teacher research it helps if:

  • expectations (teachers’ and schools’) are managed throughout the process regarding the nature and implications of any results that will be obtained
  • technical concerns (e.g. to do with research design) are not allowed to obscure attention to the teacher learning processes that teacher research stimulates (teacher research does need to be rigorous though)
  • the criteria against which the quality of teacher research is to be viewed (e.g. by teachers and their schools) are made explicit and include prominent reference to processes (e.g. the quality of learning teachers experience) not just results.
  • teachers’ prior understandings and experiences of research are made explicit and discussed early on to establish a platform for teacher research that is not exclusively experimental and quantitative
  • reasonable time is allowed for teacher research so that pressure to achieve results through short interventions bracketed by pre- and post-tests is avoided
  • teachers are motivated to do teacher research and recognise its professional and pedagogical value; if teachers do teacher research reluctantly it is more likely that the product (i.e. completing the exercise) will matter to them more than the process
  • teachers are introduced to alternative ways of doing teacher research rather than assuming the work must involve an intervention whose impact is studied quantitatively
  • teachers are encouraged to reflect on the different kinds of learning they experience during teacher research in addition to their results and to give space to such reflections when they share their work.

Measures such as these will encourage teachers to focus not just on the product (the specific research findings) of their work but also to consider the broader kinds of learning they derive from the process of doing teacher research.


Posted in professional development, teacher research | 2 Comments